Politics & Policy

Donald Trump’s Surprisingly Progressive Past

Presidential candidate Donald Trump in June 2015 (Christophr Gregory/Getty)

Donald Trump says he’s running for president because he wants to “make America great again.” That he’s chosen to run as a Republican is puzzling: As we here at National Review have often pointed out, all of the hubbub over Trump’s newfound embrace of populist, rightist rhetoric tends to conceal his many progressive stances. Here, then, a refresher course on what The Donald actually believes:


In early 2015, Trump said, “I’m pro-life and I have been pro-life. It’s an issue and a strong issue.” In 1999, however, he told Fox News that he was “totally pro-choice,” and that abortion was a “personal decision that should be left to the women and their doctors.” Of course, flip-flopping isn’t always bad, as long as you do it for the right reasons, but Trump has wavered in the past on whether the Constitution contains a “right to privacy” in the context of abortion. This ought to give committed pro-lifers pause, at the very least.

Health Care

Fifteen years ago, on the subject of single-payer health care, Trump wrote that he was “a conservative on most issues but a liberal on this one.” He argued that America needed to “reexamine the single-payer plan, as many individual states are doing,” and “improve on the prototype” of the Canadian single-payer system. Vermont, for one, took Trump’s advice and, in 2014, returned the verdict: “tax increases too big for the state to absorb.”


Many potential presidential candidates on the right — Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, et al. — have spoken about the need to cut out-of-control spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In April, asked why he didn’t support any cuts to these programs, Trump responded that “even tea-party people don’t like” the idea and that the real problem in America was the loss of “manufacturing jobs to China.” He said that he was “gonna make us rich again” so that we wouldn’t “have to” cut entitlement spending.


Trump may refuse to cut spending on entitlements, but he also knows that Social Security is approaching insolvency. In 2000, he proposed a solution: “a one-time 14.25 percent tax on individuals and trusts with a net worth over $10 million.” Such a large sum might have paid down the whole national debt in 2000, but today it wouldn’t make much of a dent, and certainly wouldn’t leave any extra cash to sustain the Social Security Trust Fund. Perhaps even more important, a one-time wealth tax would set a terrible precedent: Few policy prescriptions stay “one-time” for long, especially taxes.


Trump is as big an opponent of free trade as Bernie Sanders is today. Trump has said that he’d “love to have a trade war with China,” and has argued that the Trans-Pacific Partnership “is an attack on American businesses.”


The Fifth Amendment allows for “eminent domain,” a procedure by which the government make take private property for “public use” as long as “just compensation” is provided. June marked the tenth anniversary of the Kelo decision, in which, as Robert VerBruggen puts it,

the Supreme Court held that “public use” could include, well, private use, so long as the new property owner paid more in taxes than the previous one. In other words, it allowed developers and the government to gang up on homeowners. The developer gets more land, the government gets more tax money. The only losers are the original owner and his property rights.

In 2005, when Kelo was decided, Donald Trump told Fox News that he happened to “agree with [the decision] 100 percent.” A genuine conservative would have more regard for private property rights.

In his campaign announcement speech, Trump sang a populist tune: “Nobody would be tougher on ISIS.” He’d “stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” He would “immediately terminate President Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration” and “fully support and back up the Second Amendment.” He said that “Common Core is a disaster,” that “education has to be local,” and that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security have to be “saved without cuts.”

Some of these claims are reasonable; others are ridiculous. But the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to know what Trump believes. He’s reversed himself on abortion, advocated for single-payer health care, supported one-time wealth taxes, vouched for auto bailouts, backed a ban on assault weapons, and opposed free trade.

Does that sound like the kind of consistent conservatism the GOP needs?

— Isaac Cohen is an intern at National Review.

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